While many media companies claim to have an entrepreneurial spirit, it’s hard to push new ideas in a corporate environment. However, there are specific characteristics that companies can utilize to encourage their staff to present new ideas, whether product or process, with confidence they won’t get trapped in the system.

“I view the InfoWorld brand as a skunkworks for the IDG organization, where if we have a good idea, it works well and we communicate it well, it can get repeated across the company,” says vice president of marketing Paul Calento. “It’s more of a culture than a formal process.”

Calento credits a decentralized environment, where 100 business units are given a certain degree of autonomy, along with a corporate credo that lists “Let’s try it” as a corporate value, as characteristics that give every employee the confidence to act like a business developer. “Being decentralized allows business units the flexibility to do what they think will best meet their constituencies’ needs but also allow the company to hedge its bets,” says Calento. “So they can take something that works, duplicate it and expand it across the company as appropriate.”

Case in point is John Udell, lead analyst and blogger-in-chief at the 70-person InfoWorld unit, whose development of ‘screencasting';a narrated video software tutorial;has opened up new advertising opportunities for companies such as Microsoft. InfoWorld is attempting to leverage Udell’s video technique the same way it has with podcasting, which represents a “low seven-figure opportunity,” according to Calento. “This is really taking John Udell’s passion program and leveraging it for new revenue. If you put your ear to the ground you’ll find a variety of ongoing passion programs that can be leveraged for new revenues.”

Calento says monthly “opportunity meetings” act as idea incubators, where new market opportunities are frequently uncovered and built out. Doug Dineley, InfoWorld executive editor, emerged from one of these meetings as an editorial chair for a new enterprise virtualization event. “We were trying to figure out if we should do an event and it was through his discussions in these opportunity meetings that helped us build out the program and the positioning,” says Calento. Likewise, vice president and general manager Virginia Hines took the initiative on the burgeoning social networking market to work a community called IT Exec Connect into her budget. “Other parts of the organization, by just looking at it, are finding ways to build monetizable businesses based on that,” says Calento.

Survival of the Fittest
“When you say, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea. How about heading that up?’ that’s where the rubber hits the road,” says Tom Valentino, chief operating officer at enthusiast publisher Future US. “You find out who the real champions are.”

At Future, the 250 employees spread through three offices are welcome to communicate ideas via the company’s intranet. But ideas have the best chance of getting considered if they’re carefully thought-out and even presented with a three- to four-year outlook. According to Valentino, employees are encouraged to meet with business managers and hash out the idea in a “board paper” complete with business plan. Valentino and president Jonathan Simpson-Bint will then consider it, often during one of their weekly meetings (during which an employee is frequently presenting a launch idea).

“It can’t be a big suggestion box,” adds Valentino. “It’s interesting that when someone has to stop and write it down as a business plan it ferrets out the wishes from the real ideas.”

At Future, a typical idea advanced by an employee might take the form of a special interest one-shot. Jon Phillips, Future’s editorial director, “is a real car nut,” says Valentino. “We haven’t dabbled in the automotive area, but we respect his ideas and he’s brought an idea for a one-shot around high performance cars and he worked with a business manager to come up with a simple P&L,” says Valentino. “One-shots and specials, we can get behind those pretty easily.”

If executed in time, specials and one-offs are incorporated into the annual budget. Otherwise, “If a good idea comes up at other times, and it’s a one-shot, we have a pre-authorized newsstand code that we can use to try it,” says Valentino. “We can normally launch a one-shot from existing funds, within the group’s budget, if it’s got some advertising around it.”

Care is taken to avoid over-taxing the staff. Freelance help will typically be utilized for projects, led by the idea originator. “We do rely on the internal staff to at least get the seed of the project on paper and initially launched,” he says. “Then we may bring in new internal resources.”

Encouraging Initiative
Large companies can be entrepreneurial. Here are a few tips to get beyond mere lip service.
1. Give your operating groups more autonomy.
2. Create a legitimately entrepreneurial culture. Then facilitate it with some guidance. Add it to your corporate values, have frequent “opportunity meetings.”
3. Be ready to capitalize by duplicating a good idea company-wide.
4. Make your employees work for it. Separate the wishes from the real ideas by having them submit ideas backed up with a business plan.
5. Make sure employees are ready to be the champions behind the ideas they submit.